What Did Pope Francis Really Do During The “Dirty War”?
By Nick OlleMarch 19, 2013
On March 13, at a dinner with the cardinals who had just elected him as the new pontiff, Pope Francis quipped, “May God forgive you for what you have done.” When just two days later the Holy See publicly defended the pontiff — against accusations of complicity in human-rights abuses — men of lesser faith might have looked back at the Pope’s joke with suspicion.
No sooner had Pope Francis first appeared on the balcony of St Peter’s Basilica than whispers of his having had a shady past began circulating. As whispers tend to do, they multiplied and the story spread like wildfire around the globe. The Catholic Church has enough problems, people began to say, how could it fail so badly in its background checks?
Where had this story come from?
It dates back more than three decades to Argentina’s so-called “dirty war”; the 1976 to 1983 military dictatorship that killed an estimated 30,000 people. The most serious allegation against Father Jorge Mario Bergoglio (as Pope Francis was known until last week) is that in May 1976 he allowed the junta to abduct two Jesuit priests, Orlando Yorio and Francisco Jalics. According to Bergoglio’s chief accuser, Argentine journalist Horacio Verbitsky, he withdrew protection from the two men, effectively enabling the junta to kidnap and torture them.
Verbitsky’s claim is based on conversations with Fr Jalics, who was released along with Fr Yorio after five months in captivity. In a statement released by the German Jesuit order where Fr Jalics now works, he said: “Under the assumption that we also had something to do with the guerrillas we were arrested … I cannot comment on the role of Fr Bergoglio in these events.” He added that he was now “reconciled” with the events and wished Pope Francis well.
Fr Yorio died of natural causes in 2000.
The upshot of this is that the central allegation against Pope Francis is one that the source — and the only living alleged victim — won’t verify. This, of course, doesn’t make it untrue, but it does make it nigh impossible to prove.
There is ancillary evidence to support Verbitsky’s claim. The Argentine judiciary, which almost daily hears human-rights cases against former military officers, ruled this year that the Catholic Church was complicit in the junta’s excesses. Bergoglio himself (as Archbishop of Buenos Aires) has testified at two dirty war trials, and invoked his right under Argentine law not to testify at others. His testimony in relation to the disappearances of Frs Yorio and Jalics was described as “evasive” by prosecutor Luis Zamora. He has never been judicially investigated personally.
One person who thinks the Pope is guilty of colluding with the military dictatorship is Estela de la Cuadra. Her sister Elena was one of the opponents of the left-wing regime who was “disappeared” by the military. She was five months pregnant at the time. Estela recounts that her father called on Father Bergoglio (as he then was) for help and that the priest put him in touch with a bishop. This bishop, she says, told her father that he had a granddaughter and that she was “with a good family”. The distribution among military families of babies born to murdered political opponents was systematic during the dictatorship. Estela insists that if the bishop knew of the baby, then Fr Bergoglio must have too, but in 2010 Archbishop Bergoglio claimed that he only learned of the practice after the country returned to democracy in 1983.
The Argentine human-rights organisation Abuelas de la Plaza de Mayo (Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo) has taken a somewhat softer stance. Pope Francis, they say, has many great qualities but he has been — like the Catholic Church as whole — conspicuous by his absence throughout the organisation’s 35-year struggle to identify stolen children and return them to their true families. Abuelas’ president Estela de Carlotto concedes that Pope Francis cannot be accused of active collusion with the military junta but says she believes that he knew of the human-rights abuses and did not speak out.
“Complicity is a strong word in the case of Jorge Bergoglio, but I think the church hierarchy was complicit in error or omission,” she says.
This is what the case against Pope Francis really boils down to — that perhaps he could have done more to help people during the dark days of the last military dictatorship.
But even that may be unfair. Some seriously big guns have come in to bat for the pontiff. Argentina’s Nobel Peace Prize winner Adolfo Perez Esquivel, who was abducted and tortured by the military junta, told BBC Mundo: “There were some bishops who were in collusion with the military, but Bergoglio is not one of them.” Former judge Alicia Oliveira goes even further, describing the claims against the Pope as an “outrage”. In an interview with the Perfil newspaper, she says that she saw Bergoglio twice weekly during the dictatorship, adding: “He was not in favour of the dictatorship, he even helped people try to leave the country.
“Once there was a young man who could not leave because he was a marked man, but he looked like [Bergoglio] so he gave him his identity card and his ‘clergyman’ so he could escape.” Oliveira goes on to explain that she too was on the junta’s blacklist and avoided capture by hiding out at the house of her friend Nilda Garré, Argentina’s current security minister.
Media reports on Pope Francis now fall into two remarkably distinct camps — he’s a humble servant of the poor who can reinvigorate the Catholic Church, or he’s a weak man who lacked the conviction to help others in their darkest hours.
It’s highly improbable that Pope Francis is both these things — and there is far more evidence that he’s the former.
Nick Olle assisted the SBS Dateline team on their report on the Pope’s early career in Argentina. It broadcasts in Australia on March 19 at 9.30pm, EDST, and will be online shortly after.